||A Review of: Keystone: The Life and Clowns of Mack Sennett
by James Roots
Few of the early twentieth-century entertainers resisted the
compulsion to gussy-up their backgrounds. And if they didn't do
it themselves, publicity teams would be brought in on their behalf
by studios or agents to rewrite prosaic history into lurid melodrama.
Tracking the truth of their lives through such jungles of misinformation
was hardly worth the efforts of would-be biographers before the
Consider the time, money, and sweat Simon Louvish might have had
to expend 25 years ago in order to put the lie to the received
wisdom that a pubescent W.C. Fields smacked his father over the
head with a shovel and walked off to starve in the gutters for his
art. The London-based Louvish would have had to take an extended
leave of absence to travel to New York, Philadelphia, and various
locations in California, spending months poring over century-old
newspapers and museum artifacts, and very likely still wouldn't
have excavated the truth.
Today's Web-savvy Louvish instead plundered on-line archives from
the comfort of his home in his spare time. Equally important, he
simply connected with Fields maniacs in New York, Philly, and
California, whom he would have been highly unlikely to ever find
in pre-Internet days. These fan-boys leapt at the chance to flaunt
their devotion to Fieldsian trivia by voluntarily tracking down
ancient phone directories, police blotters, civic records, and
newspaper archives available through websites, providing Louvish
with all the most obscure documentation he could possibly need.
The result , Man on the Flying Trapeze: The Life and Times of W.C.
Fields (1997), is an outstanding biography that was also one of the
first to utilize these kinds of resources to uncover the truth
behind deeply-embedded Hollywood mythologizing.
Louvish followed it with Monkey Business: The Lives and Legends of
the Marx Brothers (1999) and Stan and Ollie: The Roots of Comedy
(2001), both of which used the same methodology to dig up fascinating
new information. He put all previous biographers in the shadow.
Now, with Keystone: The Life and Clowns of Mack Sennett, Louvish
has turned to the Canadian expatriate who established the Keystone
Studio in 1912 as the world's first studio devoted entirely to film
Of course Sennett didn't invent slapstick; it had been around at
least since Aristophanes. But he put low comedy on celluloid (or
to be more accurate, on nitrate) for the masses, and set up the
archetypes exemplified by Jerry Lewis, the Three Stooges, Mel Brooks,
Saturday Night Live, Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker, the Wayans Brothers,
a million TV sitcoms, and just about any other American film comedian
including the early Woody Allen (Bananas, Sleeper).
Sennett's philosophy of comedy was simple: "We get an idea,"
he explained to a disconcerted Charlie Chaplin, "then follow
the natural sequence of events until it leads up to a chase, which
is the essence of our comedy." This ad-lib approach is verified
by the Keystone scripts which Louvish excerpts in chronological
order: in the early years, they consisted of mere half-page synopses,
and even 20 years later they were expanded to only 17 pages.
The plots, such as they were, invariably consisted of two guys
getting into a scrap over a girl. In post-production, their
rough-and-tumble antics would often be wrapped around the filming
of an actual event such as a car-race, a Shriners parade, or in one
memorable case (A Muddy Romance) the draining of a lake. At the
climax of many of these films, the famed Keystone Kops would careen
irrelevantly with high-speed incompetence as a guarantor of audience
laughter. And that was it.
The Keystone films haven't aged well. Yet it is hard to over-estimate
the impact and importance of these primitive, almost bestial 24-minute
speedball "farce comedies" (as they were billed). More
than any other kind of film, they built the mass audience for the
cinema. Their lowbrow hilarity, fearless ethnic characterizations,
cartoon violence, upending of authority figures, and speechless
pantomime offered America's huge World War One immigrant population
a very easy and inexpensive entry route into their new society,
both as performers and as audience members.
Every great or even merely good comedian of the Golden Age of Silent
Comedy, with the exceptions only of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy,
cut their teeth with Sennett. Even Carole Lombard and-ye gods!-Bing
Crosby started out there. It is beyond dispute that Sennett had the
greatest eye for film comedy talent in history.
But who was Sennett? We know he was born in Quebec, was raised
mostly in Connecticut, and that he aspired to a Broadway singing
career before breaking into films as a comic actor at the legendary
Biograph Studios. We know also that along the way, he changed his
family name from Sinnott to Sennett because kids mocked the original
version as "S'nott".
Louvish recognizes the transformation from S'nott to Sennett as
"the key to appreciating the sixty-four-thousand-dollar question
arising from our story: how did the gauche Canadian immigrant lad,
whose sole ambition appeared to be to sing grand opera, mutate into
the manipulating, all-powerful Hollywood boss, the archetypal movie
By his own admission, Louvish is unable to satisfactorily answer
that expensive question. Unlike in his biographies of Fields, the
Marxes, and Laurel and Hardy, the recovery of roots is stunted
because in Sennett's case there simply aren't enough extant records,
even with all the 1897 East Berlin phone-books and 1908 Broadway
showbills accessible on the Internet.
Instead of being piqued by the mystery, Louvish has chosen to take
extensive detours through the lives and work of Sennett's clowns.
Roughly 250 pages focus on such worthies (and they are worthies)
as Ben Turpin, Roscoe Arbuckle, Mabel Normand, Harry Langdon, Billy
Bevan, Charlie Chaplin and others who passed through Sennett's
gates. The justifications for these detours can be valid-who knew
Mabel had Quebec roots, just as her on-and-off fianc Mack did?-but
they can also verge on the preposterous, as when he implies that
the colossally uninventive Bevan was ripped-off by the infinitely
more creative Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and Laurel and Hardy.
What makes Louvish's surrender astonishing is that he finds the key
to the mystery, turns it over in his mind, decides it is valid, and
then closes the book. Hell, that's where the book should have
In his largely fictional autobiography, King of Comedy (1954),
Sennett cemented the romantic rationale for his life-long bachelorhood
by exaggerating his doomed love for Mabel Normand. As Louvish
describes it in one of his many felicitous lines, Sennett made
"a great love story out of two people who had plenty of
opportunities to get together but didn't."
The fate of that affair was fixed by Mabel supposedly catching him
in bed with another actress, a shock from which the deceptively
nave Normand never recovered. The reality was most likely that
Sennett was secretly gay and was caught in bed with an actor, which
definitely would have crushed the clueless girl he had been stringing
along for years.
Sennett affected to be a man's man while simultaneously being a
momma's boy. He lived in an athletic club with other men, never
married, was probably the only Hollywood mogul not to use a
casting-couch for would-be starlets; instead, he invited male
visitors to strip and join him in his giant studio bathtub-and was
allegedly caught-out by Chaplin and Slim Summerville.
Moreover, although Louvish seems unaware of it, Anthony Slide in
Silent Players (2002) reported an extraordinary interview with
Keystone actor Ralph Graves in which the latter raved about his
"unholy relationship with Mack Sennett: two years of my life,
every day, every night, were spent with Mack Sennett."
Sennett's hard-ass shanty-Irish Catholic background would have been
enough in itself to have driven him to hide his homosexuality. He
had overtly suspicious "beard" affairs with at least two
other women besides Mabel. And living on the edge of exposure at a
time when homosexuality was still a crime in many states could have
precipitated both his S'nott-Sennett transformation and the hatred/fear
of cops that underlies the relentless comic humiliation they suffer
in his movies. His secret homosexuality is the key not only to his
life but his art.
Why Louvish fails to be energized by this thesis is baffling. Perhaps
he had just been bored into inertia. Unlike the subjects of his
previous books, Sennett was a businessman, not a comedian, and
Louvish clearly doesn't have his heart in reporting the corporate
machinations that completely dominated Sennett's life from 1912
until his company's collapse 20 years later. At one point he devotes
several pages to quoting great swatches of incomprehensible business
documents without providing elucidation, as though telling us,
"Here, this is what Sennett was doing for 20 years. Who cares,
He also gets sloppy with details; when you do your research via the
Internet, the ease of access can foster a lack of diligence.
Fortunately, the errors are usually insignificant enough to make
only the fans irritated. An example is his constant identification
of Roscoe Arbuckle by his screen-character's name of "Fatty".
That makes as much sense as referring to Mike Myers as "Fat
One attribute that makes Louvish's biographies valuable is his
insight into the times, specifically the 1890s-1940s, and how they
shaped characters. The post-WWI era was one of great rebellion
even as American society became more repressive (it was, after all,
Prohibition times); he sees this conflict reflected in Sennett's
habit of hiring great rebels like Chaplin and Frank Capra and then
strictly controlling them. Naturally, they eventually rebelled
against him, too, and left for artistic freedom and more money-which
inspired his sarcastic motto, "Start with Sennett, get rich
Louvish also does an excellent job of defining the tragedy of Mabel
Normand, the most highly-regarded comedienne of the day, whose fatal
excesses of behaviour he astutely attributes to the fact that she
was part of the very first generation of film idols and thus had
"no compass to orient [herself] in the storms of movie-goers'
curiosity and adulation." Stars like Mabel "had no
predecessors from whose experience they could benefit. This was
more difficult for the women, in an age not far past the Victorian."
Another very interesting point he raises is that, "We are used
to reading about the problems silent actors had adjusting to the
talkies of the late 1920s, but during the long dawn of the cinema
[i.e., the first decade of the twentieth century], the problem was
the other way around." Stage actors found it very hard to move
from speech-is-everything live theatre to speech-is-nothing silent
film. Sennett developed the somewhat odd conviction that this made
drama impossible in the cinema, and it is a major reason why he
opted to satirize the genre mercilessly and repeatedly, despite his
adoring friendship and early working relationship with its greatest
exponent, D. W. Griffith.
When Sennett's comedy empire finally collapsed in 1933, the life
went out of this roaring man overnight. He spent the remaining two
decades of his existence sitting in hotel lobbies watching people,
while (ugh!) dipping his cigar in coffee and sucking it. Perhaps
he knew the next generation of comics-the Marx Brothers, Mae West,
Fields, Wheeler and Woolsey, Bob Hope-owed their avenues of success
to his efforts, even if they would not acknowledge it. Like a good
pioneering Canadian boy, he had blazed the trail for future generations
that would not remember his name.